Monday, May 06, 2013

What is Materialism ?

Well first the word has a very different meaning in the USA and in those other countries.  In the USA it refers to the obsessive quest for wealth and, especially, material posessions (I'm not sure if passionate love of a huge bank balance unaccompanied by conspicuous consumption is or isn't materialism -- it is greed, misery and avarice, but it is basically non existent in my native country).  This is called "consumismo" in Italian (a word which lead to a profound failure of communication between Ralph Nader and Pope Paul VIth -- a failure of communication perhaps also partly due to the fact that neither of them ever listened to anyone).

That's not the meaning I wish to discuss.  The materialism I have in mind is that of Democritus who is alleged to have said "all that exists are atoms and the void."  It amounts to extreme atheism (is God an atom or the void ?).  Materialists who dare not speak their name include Hobbes and (possibly) DesCartes.  Augusts Compte was an early post Democritus out of the closet materialist.

There was a reaction.  It is called idealism (again not at all the standard contemporary USA meaning).  A huge tendency in the anti-materialist school is to conflate knowledge and truth -- to argue that if we perceive the atoms and the void using our minds, then they are all in our minds (Berkeley where "our minds" include the objective truth called the mind of God) or partly in our minds (sane idealists).  I think it is unfortunate that people respond to a thought about what might exist with a thought about what might be known to exist.  They are different questions and both are interesting.

Frankly, I think this shows that religious people escape into post modernist denial of objective reality when confronted by atheists.  The absolutely correct argument is "you can't know that there is no God, because we can't know anything".  This argument is exactly as valid as "you can't know that there is no tooth fairy, because we can't know anything" being a special case of "you can't know that there is no x (provided that the description of x does not include a logical contradiction) because we can't know anything."  Of course the parenthetical insert rules out Christian doctrine which is chock full of logical contradictions, but I am trying to write about materialism.

One of the anti-materialists was named Hegel.  He wrote a lot.  I haven't read any of it and wouldn't be able to make any sense of it if I did.  I will now critique Hegelians based on complete ignorance (such is blogging).  I will pretend Hegel said that history is governed by "Zeitgeist" (so I will quote one (1) word, (possibly misspelled) and denounce it at tiresome length).  As far as I know (not at all) the idea is that a reductionistic view of history was incorrect and one couldn't understand individuals without considering the times in which they lived.  I am fairly sure this means that it isn't enough to consider their experiences including what their mommas taught them.  I believe it means that there are not general psychological laws which relate us to our biological nature and our life experience or nurture (this is by analogy with the meaning of "organic chemistry" at the time which was that atoms could not be understood without knowing if they were part of a living thing or not -- this embarassing episode has been erased from the intellectual history of most who use the word "organic" especially including modern organic chemists).  So to Hegel ideas affected material events.  It isn't clear to me (based on reading nothing) to what extent the German word translated "idea" refers to an idea and to what extent to a Platonic ideal (are they in our heads or in hyper-Urania ?).

But the point is that the parts can not be understood based on the way they were at time t and things that happened to them from t on.

Marx decided to turn Hegel on his head.  He decided that underneath it all there were classes not nations, class iterests not ideas (or ideals).  Economics not metaphysics.

But the road East is the same road as the road West.  Hegel upside down remains holistic.  Whether the whole is united by blood or class interest it is, or can be, united somehow.

I think all holistic theories are full of holes.  I think the concept of the working class is as mystical as the concept of the German Nation.  I have equally little faith in the zeitgeist and the zeitgeld.

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